Thirty years ago the Daily Telegraph sent me to investigate the underworld of toxic waste disposal around Naples, even then a big enough scandal to have gained attention in London. Brave activists from Amici della Terra took me on tour of dumping zones scattered along the lower slopes of Mount Vesuvius, which were leaking deadly chemicals into the water system. Mafia scouts watched closely and wrote down number plates. The business was controlled by the Camorra, the famously-bloody Neapolitan clan. The even bloodier Ndraghetta controlled waste dumps further south in Calabria. The hazardous loads came in lorries from the industrial centres of North Italy and Europe’s heartland. It was systematic and these networks were operating with near total impunity, and the apparent complicity of regional authorities. Heroic anti-Mafia judges such as my late friend Ferdinando Imposimato tried to resist. He had 24/7 police protection so they assassinated his brother instead as an easier target. Ferdinando was forced into exile. His memoir was released in France because no Italian publisher dared to touch it. Un Juge En Italie is one of the most disturbing books I have ever read. Rome’s political casta is not spared.
What has changed thirty years later? Nothing. Astonishing revelations have confirmed the worst, from the Camorra pentito Carmine Schiavone, from parliamentary hearings, from Roberto Saviano’s journalism in Gomorrah, yet nothing has really changed. The business is still booming, and it is spreading through alliances to the Balkans. A joint Europol operation last year – ‘Green Tuscany’ – shows that Camorra tentacles have stretched North and linked up with Chinese eco-criminals in a global nexus.
I thought of this gaping environment wound when the EU’s Michel Barnier told us this week that Britain cannot be trusted even with the sort of bare bones trade access secured by Korea, Japan, and Canada, unless it accepts level playing-field clauses on the environment, as well as labour standards, competition, tax, and so forth, as an extra safeguard. The pretence that there is an objective ladder of higher and lower standards – and that Brussels is the arbiter of slippage – is of course diplomatic legerdemain and must be rejected tout court. The EU’s strategic aim is to compel Britain to swallow the Acquis even though much of this legislation is either dysfunctional or incompatible with 21st Century science and technology. It aims to pin down this country as a legal colony with no way out later other than the pariah step of treaty abrogation. Nor does it stop there. Brussels wants ‘dynamic alignment’ on future law, starting with state aid. No matter that the UK has the best record on competition policy among major EU members, as Boris Johnson pointed out in his deliciously-defiant and uplifting Greenwich speech. “The EU has enforced state aid rules against the UK only four times in the last 21 years, compared with 29 actions against France, 45 against Italy – and 67 against Germany,” he said. But what sticks most in my craw is relentless EU humbug on the environment, and I watch with mounting anger as Euro-MPs and a clutch of states try to broaden dynamic alignment to this broad area as the price of any trade deal. We must endure this condescension just weeks after the German state of North-Rhine Westphalia opened Juniper’s Datteln-4 coal power station – and yes, you read that correctly – it authorised a brand new 1 GW plant to begin belching its fumes in January. Germany is ignoring a solemn UN request that no coal plant should ever again be opened anywhere in the world, a decision that will go down in infamy. The green watchdog Sandbag says RWE’s four large plants in NR Westphalia are burning lignite – the dirtiest of coals – and spreading poisonous emissions across a densely-populated area of 46 million people. This quartet is causing an estimated 4,200 premature deaths a year.
For good measure, RWE is clearing fresh forest to extend the open lignite mine in Hambach to feed these monsters. Germany will not phase out coal until 2038. Meanwhile, the UK has largely eliminated coal from the power system thanks to its carbon price floor – tougher than the EU’s regime – and thanks to a cross-party drive for renewable energy. The UK was the first major country to enshrine drastic C02 cuts in national law with the Climate Change Act of 2008, trumped by Theresa May’s Net-Zero plan last year, another global first. Britain’s emissions have fallen by 42pc since 1990, compared to 23pc for the EU. We should not be pious. Several states are grasping the nettle on climate change. But it borders on grotesque to insinuate that this country – with its pioneering tradition of green activism and its world-class centres of climate science – is a wanton ecological abuser. Or for that matter, a wanton violator of labour rights. As the Prime Minister said, the UK has tougher standards than the EU minima in most areas of social policy. It offers up to 39 weeks paid maternity leave viz 14 weeks in the EU. It has one of the highest minimum wages. Several states have none at all. Etc, etc, “I dispel the absurd caricature of Britain as a nation bent on the slash and burn of workers’ rights and environmental protection, as if we are saved from Dickensian squalor only by enlightened EU regulation, as if it was only thanks to Brussels that we are not preparing to send children back up chimneys,” he said.
By Mr Barnier’s logic the UK might equally exclude EU goods from our market unless it complies with higher British standards on covert export subsidies, or social protection, or CO2 cheating. “Will we stop Italian cars or German wine from entering this country tariff free, or quota free, unless the EU matches our UK laws on plastic coffee stirrers? Will we accuse them of dumping? Of course not,” said Mr Johnson. Britain will not do so because it is the nation of Smith, Ricardo, and the trade philosophy of comparative advantage, and because that is not how global commerce works. Yes, safeguard clauses on the broad principles of civilised conduct are normal in trade deals, but that is radically different from what the EU wants. Mr Barnier has put forward an extraordinary doctrine, that the UK cannot have a sovereign trade relationship because it is too big and because it sits on the EU doorstep. What this really means is that Britain will be subject to special punitive terms as an ex- EU member if it opts to be a self-governing state under its own laws. We are getting to the nub of the matter. Downing Street’s negotiator, David Frost, told a Brussels audience this week, that to accede to these demands not only defeats the purpose of Brexit but is also unworkable and would surely end in a final volcanic rupture. Indeed. How could such a disenfranchised relationship possibly end otherwise? For three years Brussels told us that we had to stop fantasising, stop cherry picking, and face the hard choices before us. Now this government has done exactly that. It has chosen the Canada/Korea/Japan route with no bells and whistles. It seeks nothing special. “We only want what other independent countries have,” said Mr Frost. It is the EU that is suddenly caught flat-footed, sputtering incoherently, unable to take a Canadian yes for an answer, and frantically moving the goal posts.
Had this UK-EU spat occurred last year, the pound would have dived against the euro, courtesy of the Pavlovian political risk trade. This time sterling has held firm. Clearly, something has changed in the way global markets view a pugnacious Borisian Brexit and how they view the unravelling credibility of the EU position. Europe runs big risks in pursuing Barnier hegemonism, leaving aside the delicate subject of its military impotence in a dangerous neighbourhood, and the UK’s anchoring role in NATO. It is already offering so little in trade talks that the differential cost of the WTO option is trivial. Were the UK to say Auf Wiedershen and shift into the American orbit for the next half century, the consequences for Europe would be shattering on several fronts. Brussels has already made an unwelcome discovery over the last eighteen months. The EU was not immune to the Brexit confidence shock after all. Germany was if anything hit harder than the UK itself, and this has combined with a deeper industrial and technological crisis eating at the German business model. My view all along has been that the EU was never strong as it looked to those in the Brussels/Westiminster bubble with no Fingerspitzengefühl for the world economy, and it is particularly vulnerable right now. One can be mislead by mechanical arguments on relative size: 445m against 66m. The EU’s £95bn bilateral trade surplus (half German) and its sunk supply chains create asymmetric points of weakness. It will pay a higher price than the EU political class realizes if it treats the City as an enemy and loses its global banker. The leaked contingency plan from Nissan suggesting that the carmaker may shut plants in Europe and instead double down on the UK in a clean Brexit confirms what I suspected, that Brussels underestimates the import-substitution impact in the UK. These effects would cushion some of the blow for British industry. The EU would face a pure trade loss, and it would have to compete toe-to-toe with cheaper world products in the UK market. Above all, euroland remains trapped in a deflationary quagmire, with interest rates already at minus 0.5pc and bond yields deeply negative, and with a paralysed fiscal machinery fixed by EU treaty law. As Mr Frost said, the EU has “extreme difficulty in correcting wrong decisions.” And the most calamitous wrong decision – my words, not his – was to launch a monetary union without a matching fiscal union, and to do so governed by German contractionary ideology.
In short, the eurozone is chronically incapable of generating endogenous growth and has an excruciatingly-low economic pain threshold. The next serious global downturn will reveal – again – that its political pain threshold is just as low. My personal reaction to the Barnier demarche – and to predictable news that Brussels is adding unrelated political grievances to the terms of any trade accord, starting with the Elgin Marbles – is that you cannot negotiate with these people. Britain should forget about a trade deal with Europe and look to the world. It should pursue a fast-track accord with the US, given that Washington wants the same thing and is lavishing us with affection. It should throw itself into talks with the Anglo-sphere, India, and the fifteen Asia-Pacific countries of the RCEP pact. As Mr Johnson said, Britain must rediscover the Greenwich trading spirit of 1707 and seek to become laureate nation of open global commerce. If Mr Barnier comes off his doctrinal high horse and returns with a genuine offer on sovereign terms, excellent, but this country should never again prostrate itself for crumbs from Brussels. That horrible chapter of our national life must end.